Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
I have skipped ahead to Casey’s review of the European Middle Ages. His first chapter regarding this period is entitled “Christianity,” as seems appropriate if one is discussing freedom’s progress in the Middle Ages.
For its first three hundred years, Christianity was a non-establishment religion. Christians learned to live beyond the action of the state, without state protection, and even had to struggle against the state:
These three centuries established an abyss between the domain of government and the domain of religion….
When Constantine turned to Christianity, much of his reason was for the support that this religion could bring to the Imperial State. Initially, Caesaro-Papism (with the head of state also head of the Church) held sway. This arrangement continued in the East until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
In the post-Roman West, the story was somewhat different.
In the wake of the Rome’s demise, barbarian kingdoms emerged – Visigoths, Franks, Lombards. As tribes accepted Christianity, for a time Caesaro-Papism continued. However from the eleventh century onward, this would all change.
Tom Palmer regards Gregory VII’s issuance of Dictatus Papae in 1075, in which the independence of the Church was announced, as “the first of the most significant moments of the past thousand years.”
The power of the Church gradually increased in the subsequent years, such that papal power came to know no national bounds in wielding imperial authority. While ecclesiastical independence was a welcome event, it seems to have consumed itself in power, coming “to a shuddering halt with the onset of the Reformation.”
Setting aside the religious and theological issues, this result allowed for a return of local Caesaro-Papism, primarily in the areas under the sway of Lutheranism and Calvinism, but also in many Catholic regions as well. This result also gave birth to what we now know as the modern state:
The modern state, in the form in which we have come to know it – the sole sovereign power in a defined territory, exercising a monopoly on (allegedly) legitimate violence, with the power to commandeer the resources, including the persons, of its citizens – had come into existence.
There was no “state,” as we know it, until the Reformation. Again, set aside the theology; this is something worth understanding for those concerned about liberty…it seems to me. Of course, the Church was not faultless in bringing on this result, as noted by Casey.
In any case, Casey is getting too far ahead in the story. While Christianity had no immediate impact on the political environment, it did establish fundamental building blocks for what would become subsequent political thought. Casey offers three important factors:
…first, the idea that there are two centres of human allegiance; second, the development of the gold and silver rules, together the rule of reciprocity, as the basis of human conduct; and third (and for my purposes in this history, most importantly) the value of the individual as a creature made in the image and likeness of God, whose ultimate goal is to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next.
Casey examines each of these in turn – as will I shortly. However a few interesting points are raised: to the first, competing and decentralized governance authorities; to the second, the silver rule is insufficient; to the third…this one is interesting.
If the purpose of “individual” is to “know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next” (as opposed to “anything peaceful”), is it appropriate to carry forward the concept of “individual” absent this purpose? The individual minus God equals…what, exactly, to a political theory based on the individual? Curious.
In any case, let’s examine each of these three in turn:
Two Centres of Human Allegiance
There was the spiritual and the temporal, each having a claim but neither able to make a claim to the exclusion of the other.
…Christianity…involves a realization that there is no political solution to the problems of human existence…Without the separation of political authority from transcendental authority, there is no limit to what the political is and what it is meant to achieve.
It was in the spaces in between these two authorities where the political freedoms of the West found room to grow. It is easy to point to the destruction during the time of the Middle Ages – the wars, the intrigue, the corruption. To solely focus here without acknowledging the creative release due to this tension between two competing authorities is to do a disservice to the understanding of where and how liberty grows.
The Rule of Reciprocity
The silver rule and the golden rule. The silver: do not do unto others as you would not have them do to you: “This is the rule of justice.” The golden: do unto others as you would have them do unto you: “this is the law of love.”
The Bolognese monk Gratian, in his Decretum, otherwise known as the Concord of Discordant Canons, assimilates both versions of the rule of reciprocity and describes this assimilation as natural law.
Gratian composed this work in the mid-twelfth century, divided in three parts and addressing dozens of points of law. Before considering further this combination of silver and gold, perhaps some background on this work:
Gratian tried to harmonize apparently contradictory canons with each other, by discussing different interpretations and deciding on a solution.
And a comment attributed to Tom Woods:
The Decretum was called "the first comprehensive and systematic legal treatise in the history of the West, and perhaps in the history of mankind – if by 'comprehensive' is meant the attempt to embrace virtually the entire law of a given polity, and if by 'systematic' is meant the express effort to that law as a single body, in which all parts are viewed as interacting to form a whole.
Returning to Casey:
Whereas libertarianism springs unproblematically from the silver rule, the golden rule could be problematic for it.
Were the golden rule turned into law, individuals would be required by law to do things for others. Not libertarian. Yet, Gratian describes the combination of the two as “natural law,” the foundation on which many libertarians build the non-aggression principle.
Keeping in mind Gratian developed this in the twelfth century, perhaps as Casey further develops this history we might find that Gratian took the idea of natural law further than originally conceived or understood.
The Individual Made in the Image and Likeness of God
Dangerous territory, so I will let Casey do the talking:
The individual human being, a creature made in the image and likeness of God [imago dei], is a being of supreme importance – not the tribe, not the city, not the nation, not even the family.
The emergence of the individual from these Christian roots was slow in coming:
…it wasn’t until around the twelfth century that the individual began to stand out from his various social groups – family, society, community, guild and city….
And a major impetus of this emergence was increased commercial activity, not necessarily theological discovery – commercial activity that made possible survival away from the family and tribe, making the family and tribe less functionally important to the individual.
Other no less important factors that contributed to the emergence of individual were the residual insistence on freedom from restraint deriving from Germanic tribal traditions and the germ of a theory of natural rights emerging from the rediscovered and reabsorbed Roman law.
Casey uses the term “natural rights,” not “natural law.” This is in the twelfth century, coincident to the time that Gratian combined the silver and – most problematic for libertarian theory – golden rules and called these “natural law.” I am way out of my depth here, but I can’t help but consider that the golden rule, when considered as a foundation of natural law results in natural rights.
Casey notes that this emergence of the individual was not without a downside…
…as it coincided with the birth of the modern powerful, centralized and jealous state, whose ambition was to emasculate or eliminate all politically significant intermediate social groups that might vie with it for the allegiance of a mass of potentially weak, isolated individuals.
But it seems to me more than just a downside, and not merely coincident. One of the key questions: does the focus on and liberation of the individual lead to the increase in the power of the state? In other words, are these correlated and not merely coincident? Robert Nisbet would say yes.
Casey draws an interesting conclusion, and one quite different from mine (and we will see if he subsequently convinces me):
This ambition [to emasculate or eliminate all politically significant intermediate social groups] was to be realized in the twentieth century in the reversion to tribalism that we witnessed in Fascism, National Socialism, and Bolshevism.
It seems to me that while National Socialism and maybe Fascism can be described as tribal, I don’t understand this description for Bolshevism. But more importantly: the elimination of competing intermediate social groups was bound to lead to the most horrendous forms of the state witnessed by man.
Tocqueville saw this coming as early as 1840; I have argued that its roots are to be found in the Renaissance and Reformation, with the biggest push given by the Enlightenment. This would correspond with Tocqueville’s assessment.
In other words, I don’t see these “isms” caused by a “reversion to tribalism” but instead a result of isolated individuals looking for a home – and finding a home in the only social structure allowed by the state to exist: the state.
Remember the context of the term “individual” in this history, as Casey earlier offered:
…the value of the individual as a creature made in the image and likeness of God, whose ultimate goal is to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next.
It could be that the individual minus God equals…“Fascism, National Socialism, and Bolshevism” (and perhaps many other “isms” of political thought). In other words, maybe the issue isn’t tribalism. After all, it was during the tribalism of the Middle Ages that this idea of freedom was founded in the West.
From the endnotes:
Asks Leah Bradshaw: “Is it the case that ‘the detachment of secular liberalism from its religious foundations in Christianity threatens the future of the West?”
The contemporary West is perhaps the first major world culture to undertake the experiment of systematically dispensing with a religious foundation for its social and political structures.
In your heart, you know how this will turn out. There is one context in which the idea of “individualism” works. Casey has offered it.